What Is an Online College?
Online Colleges are higher learning programs and courses taken outside the traditional classroom through internet-based technology. Because of the flexibility and accessibility they can provide, they alleviate some unique challenges and barriers you may encounter.
Also known as distance learning, online colleges are becoming a common way to earn a degree. An increasing number of them available in the U.S. reflects the trends and needs of prospective students: our survey finds that 69% of prospective students are looking for either a fully online and hybrid degree program.
With this understanding, let's look into how online colleges work.
How Do Online Colleges Work?
Online colleges run more or less as a traditional class would except through a virtual platform. You can have the same coursework, type of instruction, deadlines, and amount of required hours or credits.
Depending on the degree program, you might have to gain work experience as well – such as earning clinical hours for registered nursing degree programs, or classroom hours as a secondary teacher.
Along with a variety of online teaching platforms, such as Blackboard and Canvas, there are several methods for instruction and assessment that colleges may choose. Professors can also customize their virtual classrooms.
So, now that we know what online colleges are and how they work, let’s explore some reasons why online colleges may be right for you.
Why Choose Online Colleges?
Your college experience needs can be as unique and dynamic as one person’s interests are from the next. Online colleges can also be the remedy for personal challenges that may be preventing you from earning your degree on campus, such as:
- Working full-time or part-time jobs
- Having family responsibilities or other personal commitments or requirements
- Living in rural locations (sometimes known as college deserts)
- Having a disability
- Not thriving in a classroom setting
As the results indicate, 75% of prospective and current students in the survey want the opportunity to earn their degree without the complications of travel or relocation.
Online colleges eliminate the commute time to attend classes. They can also make education programs available to you no matter where you live. (Some programs can even be available at in-state tuition rates.)
Each program is different in the way it's structured. But, online colleges can offer options for attending a class and completing coursework when you are most available. Instead of having to choose between different priorities—whether that's work or caring for you/another—you can have the ability to dedicate attention to each as needed.
Be sure to research whether your program is fully online, hybrid or on-campus. While some programs might be described as online, they still can require you to visit the campus for specific courses (e.g., nursing) or obtain work experience in the field (e.g., elementary education).
Types of Online Colleges
There are a variety of ways to take your distance learning program or courses. It’s important to ask yourself a few questions before enrolling:
- Do you want to take 100% online classes?
- Or, do you want to supplement your on-campus program with online classes?
Understanding which type of online college you want can help you prepare for what is going to be required of you. Online college courses fall under one of two categories: synchronous, “live,”or asynchronous, “self-paced.”
Depending on the program or course you’re taking and the amount of flexibility you need, you may be able to choose between either of the options if the school makes it available.
Visit our Online Education Glossary for important terms to know while look for an online college. Continue below to review the ways in which you can pursue your online education.
Who Is a Good Match for Online Colleges?
With more colleges offering online programs, nontraditional students as well as recent high school graduates have an abundance of opportunities to earn the degrees they desire. You can even explore demographic-related financial aid options as well as colleges that directly serve specific communities. Colleges are addressing the concerns and welcoming people of all different backgrounds, including: gender, ethnicity, religion, age, income-level and veteran status, just to name a few.
Our survey indicates the following demographics seeking an online education:
As you can see, the student population is not reflected by any certain type of individual. We hope you are encouraged to know that there are many recourses and options available, no matter your background.
Our OC Insights section’s guides and articles are tailored to different types of students, such as:
How to Choose the Right Online College for You
There are many ways to narrow down your search for an online college. Along with all the information we’ve provided you in previous sections, we have guides and articles that focus on specific programs, degree levels, states and financial aid opportunities. Read on to learn more.
- Choose Your
- Choose Your Location
- Choose Your Degree Level
- Consider Financial Aid Options
- Check for Accreditation
How to Choose Major
Having to choose a major can be an important moment in anyone’s life. While earning a degree doesn’t limit you to a set career, the decision, in general, aligns you with your interests, skills and potential for future career success.
Our survey indicates two revealing insights into why students choose a program:
- 96.7% of prospective students find career outlook an important factor in deciding an online degree program
- 76% of prospective students intend on pursuing a full-time employment after graduating
In fact, our survey also reveals that a majority of students select their program in order to start their career right after college:
If you are a returning student who wants a career change, your program choice can lead to new career paths and open doors to lifestyles you hadn’t anticipated. Having the necessary information to pivot your career in a more lucrative or fulfilling direction can be important factors to consider.
What You Can Find on Our Program Pages
Our program pages include detailed information about different areas of study to help you select a major. Using our unique methodologies we also provide you with the best online colleges, featured online colleges and the most affordable colleges, to help you with your decision. And, we dive deeper into accredited online degree programs to discuss:
- Program overviews
- Complementary fields of study
- Career outlooks
- Certificates and exams
- Professional associations and organizations
- Related Programs
Choosing Online Colleges by State
While access to online colleges can help alleviate the burden of location, you may also want to study closer to home. As an in-state student, you may eligible for lower tuition rates at the best online schools. In addition, being near the physical campus of online colleges in the U.S. can make it easier to take advantage of college amenities while still allowing you to study on your own terms.
Our survey shows that proximity is still an important factor on the decision-making process:
Every state has certain attributes, industries and financial aid opportunities that are uniquely theirs. When considering programs that can lead to future employment opportunities, it can be important to understand how states support certain industries and which programs may give you experience and connections to those fields.
Each of our state pages includes a list of the best online colleges and other important state-specific factors including:
- Financial aid resources
- Costs for out-of-state students
- Best careers and industries
Degree Levels for Online Colleges
Often when you are considering what degree level to pursue, you are looking for a way to advance your career. But not all careers require the same level of education. Some, such as medical assisting, only need an associate degree to meet qualifications for hiring. Other job-seekers with business administration degrees may see greater opportunity in earning an MBA. More advanced degrees can make you a more competitive candidate in the job market as well as increase your earning potential.
At every stage of learning, online programs can make it easier to obtain the necessary education. Whether you want to earn an associate, bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree or certificate, there are many great options for attending courses that are either fully online or partially online.
Each of our degree pages describes the benefits of earning a degree at that level. The pages also list the best and most affordable colleges at that degree level as determined by our customized methodologies.
Types of Online Degree Programs
- Undergraduate and graduate options may be available, depending on school and major
- Usually a year or less to complete
- Emphasizes real-world skills and career-relevant education
- Undergraduate level
- Usually takes two years to complete
- Combines major-specific courses with a broad overview of general education topics
- Undergraduate level
- Usually takes four years to complete
- Starts with core education and lower-division courses, transitions to upper-division courses
- Graduate level
- Duration varies
- Delves into theory and high-level concepts through upper-division courses
- Graduate level
- Duration varies
- The pinnacle of recognized education, focused on in-depth research and critical thought
Paying for Your Online Education
There are ample opportunities to reduce the often burdensome costs of pursuing a degree program. Don’t let finances keep you from earning the degree you need to advance in your career.
Our survey shows that the cost of college holds a significant weight in prospective students’ college search:
Some financial aid/incentives to mattered those who took the OCS survey were:
While the numerous funding options for your education may seem daunting, knowing what is available, what you qualify for, and how to apply are the first steps.
The three types of financial aid you can find at the federal, state and private levels are:
Visit our How To Pay For Online College section to explore the articles that go into detail about these education funding options.
Choosing an accredited institution and program is important in making sure your degree program meets the standards of the U.S. education system and potential employers.
Accreditation has tangible benefits for you. For example, certain state or federal financial aid sources are awarded only to students attending accredited schools. It is also easier to transfer credits from one accredited school to another, should you decide to transfer schools.
Visit our Accreditation page for a more in-depth review.